Reflexology, a therapy similar to acupressure and shiatsu, focuses on applying pressure to specific parts of the foot. This modern practice evolved from zone therapy, developed at the turn of the 20th century by an American ear, nose, and throat specialist named Dr. William Fitzgerald. In the 1930s, zone therapy was modified and renamed reflexology by Eunice Ingham, a nurse and physical therapist. Dwight Byers, Ingham’s nephew, is currently the President of the International Institute of Reflexology.
Practitioners of reflexology hold that specific parts of the foot correspond to specific body parts. By applying pressure to certain reflex points, or cutaneo-organ reflex points, the practitioner tries to produce an effect on a specific body part. Each foot is associated only with the body parts and organs on its half of the body.
The goal of reflexology is to increase the energy flow to specific parts of the body, and thus improve health. This alteration of energy flow is similar to the goals of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (see Ayurveda page).
Usually, reflexology treatment is usually performed by a trained reflexologist. A typical session begins with a foot massage and is followed by stimulation of the reflex points.
Evaluation in MS and Other Conditions
Only limited work has evaluated the efficacy of reflexology. There are anecdotal reports of some with MS benefiting from treatment. One clinical study of reflexology in MS found improvement of multiple symptoms. This study, however, was not rigorously conducted. A larger, more carefully conducted study of 71 people found improvements in MS-related bladder issues, muscle stiffness, and sensory symptoms. Limited work has been done looking at reflexology for treating pain, headache, premenstrual syndrome, and anxiety. These studies have produced suggestive data showing some benefits associated with treatment, but the studies are hampered by methodological limitations, making the data difficult to interpret.
Reflexology is generally well tolerated, with no known serious side effects. People with foot conditions, such as gout, ulcers, vascular disease, and arthritis, should approach this treatment with caution. Reflexology is usually not considered to be painful, but one German study found it occasionally induced abdominal pain in people with recent surgeries.
Reflexology is generally safe and relatively inexpensive. One study conducted in people with MS suggests reflexology may improve bladder difficulties, sensory problems, and muscle stiffness. More research needs to be done in order to determine whether reflexology has definite therapeutic effects.
References and Additional Reading
Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007, pp. 198-200.
Cassileth BR. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998: 236–239.
Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. Edinburgh: Mosby, 2001, pp. 66–69.
Spencer JW, Jacobs JJ. Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. St. Louis: Mosby, 2003, pp. 368, 369, 382, 581.
Vickers A. Massage and Aromatherapy: A Guide for Health Professionals. London: Chapman & Hall, 1996.
Joyce M, Richardson R. Reflexology can help MS. Int J Alt Compl Med 1997 July:10–12.
Oleson T, Flocco W. Randomized controlled study of premenstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand, and foot reflexology. Obstet Gynecol 1993; 82:906–911.
Siev-Ner I, Gamus D, Lerner-Geva L, et al. Reflexology treatment relieves symptoms of multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled study. Mult Scler 2003; 9:356–361.